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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Florida Governor Rick Scott slashed $461 million worth of projects from the budget passed by Florida lawmakers last week during a special session.
The move set off a new round of infighting within the already fractious Republican Party that controls state government.
The governor struck 450 lines totaling almost $461.4 million from the spending plan for the budget year that begins next month. Everything from pay increases for state firefighters to money for orange and grapefruit juice at visitors centers were cut in the largest practical use of Scott’s line-item veto since he took office in 2011. While Scott slashed $615 million that year, the number was inflated by nixing $305 million that was supposed to be generated by selling state lands; even supporters said the initiative would have brought in a tiny fraction of that funding.
Scott said he wielded his pen against projects that didn’t meet a defined set of criteria he set out. The vetoes reduced what had been a $78.7 billion spending plan to about $78.2 billion.
“I went through the budget looking at every project saying, ‘What’s a statewide priority? Can I get a good return on investment? Has it gone through a state process?’ ” Scott told reporters.
But others saw payback after two grinding legislative sessions this spring in which lawmakers largely sidelined the second-term governor. Scott’s proposed increase in education funding was reduced, and his tax-cut package was whittled down to pay for an increase in hospital spending he opposed. The Senate also strongly backed a plan that would have used Medicaid expansion dollars to help lower-income Floridians buy private insurance, prompting Scott to threaten members of the upper chamber with vetoes. The plan died in the House.
“He promised that he would punish the constituents of those legislators who disagreed with him, and he kept his promise,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
In a blistering statement, Senate President Andy Gardiner upbraided Scott for slicing programs for Floridians with disabilities, along with cutting the raises for forestry firefighters and funding for health-care providers.
“While I respect the governor’s authority to veto various lines within our budget, his clear disregard for the public policy merits of many legislative initiatives underscores that today’s veto list is more about politics than sound fiscal policy,” said Gardiner, R-Orlando. “It is unfortunate that the messaging strategy needed to achieve the governor’s political agenda comes at the expense of the most vulnerable people in our state.”
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also blasted the governor for vetoing almost $1.6 million for the firefighter raises.
“They’re demonstrably underpaid relative to peers,” Putnam said. “And I’m even more disappointed that it was not applied consistently. The helpful people who take your driver’s license photo were allowed to receive a pay raise, and our forest firefighters who put their lives on the line were not.”
Scott said $2.6 million for pay increases for employees of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles was backed up by the needs of that agency. He also noted pointedly that he has advocated for performance bonuses for state employees.
“The Legislature did not put in the budget pay increases for state workers other than that one (for firefighters) and highway safety,” he said. “In highway safety’s case, they’re seeing a shortage of applicants, and so that was the rationale.”
Not everyone was critical. House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, applauded Scott for looking out for taxpayers and trying to impose some accountability in the budget process.
“In the totality of it, I think he did a great job of recognizing we’re not dealing with Monopoly money,” Corcoran said.
He also minimized the complaints about Scott’s decision to strike large portions of the spending plan.
“I think this is something you see post-big veto lists all the time, and it doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” Corcoran said.
Scott axed $15 million for a downtown campus for the University of Central Florida — a project dear to Gardiner — because he said it wasn’t approved through the Florida Board of Governors process for the university system. The board had agreed to ask the Legislature for $2.8 million to help fund a $5.8 million study of the project.
The governor cut a swath of increases for health-care providers, including more than $3 million for pediatric physicians and more than $1.7 million for private-duty nursing services, saying those services had received an increase in the current budget year.
And he slashed tens of millions of dollars a year in water projects more closely associated with the House — including $27.3 million for water management.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said that represented a loss for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. Lee said many of his Senate colleagues were taking the vetoes personally and perceived that the upper chamber was being punished, because of Scott’s earlier threats during the health-care debate.
“They would have no basis for that had it not come from his own lips to their ears,” Lee said.
Lee acknowledged that Scott used the veto more readily this year than last, when the governor struck just $68.9 million from a roughly $77 billion budget.
“What a difference a year makes,” he said. “I wish I could’ve been the appropriations chair in an election year.”
Whether Scott further damaged his already-tenuous relationship with the Legislature — and particularly the Senate — remains to be seen. Gaetz noted that Scott was “all-powerful” on Tuesday because of the line-item veto included in the Constitution.
“But tomorrow, the world turns,” Gaetz said, “and the governor’s back in the position of trying to sell his ideas for next year’s budget.”
(The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.)